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Peter King's Muslim Problem

“My son was a proud American, and he would be so disgusted if he were alive,” says Talat Hamdani, a member of September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, whose police-cadet son Mohammad Salman Hamdani died as a first responder at the World Trade Center. “If you want people to collaborate with you, you don’t go on a witch hunt. It’s wrong when your own nation turns against you. He’s pandering.”

Asim Rehman, vice-president of the Muslim Bar Association of New York, says the hearings are not only divisive but potentially dangerous. “Last year we saw vandalism, verbal threats, actual physical violence committed against Muslim Americans,” he says. “Will these hearings convince others to do the wrong thing?”

Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison, one of two Muslims elected to Congress, who plans to testify at King’s hearing as a dissenting witness, says any investigation into domestic terrorism should look at all potential sources, not just single out one group: “If you took every Muslim in America and put them in a jail, it wouldn’t have stopped Gabby Giffords from being shot. It wouldn’t have saved the people in Oklahoma City. It wouldn’t have saved the guard at the Holocaust Museum. It wouldn’t have saved the students at Columbine or Virginia Tech. To me, it’s like he’s saying we’re going to deal with drugs, but we’re only going to deal with black drug dealers.” Ellison also thinks the hearings may backfire, driving terrified Muslims further away from the mainstream. “If you start to make a community feel besieged, they’re just going to feel more reticent. It’s just a natural human reaction to feel like a target.”

In the worst-case scenario, some observers worry that a congressional hearing that targets the American Muslim community won’t stop the next attack but provoke it. “Pete King has to understand that this is not just a hearing in Washington,” says the congressman’s former friend Faroque Khan. “It will resonate across the Muslim world. And depending on how he does and how it turns out, it could create more problems. I hope he understands that. There’s a perception in some parts of the world that the United States is at war with Muslims. I don’t think it’s true. But this is the man in the street.”

King says such arguments only play into the hands of the enemy. “People think, ‘If we do look into this, it’s going to make the community more hostile,’ ” he says. “But if they’re already hostile, we’re playing their game.” Although he says American Muslims shouldn’t be painted with the broad brush of terrorism, he insists that after the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks, they have a special obligation. “People say, ‘Does that mean all Catholics should be blamed for Timothy McVeigh?’ and I say no. But if the Jewish Defense League did something, then yes, the Jews would have an obligation to speak out. If there was an Irish Catholic organization, or if a group in Ireland was recruiting people over here to fight the U.S., then yeah, we would have an obligation to speak out.” He even goes a step further and suggests that he, not the Muslim community, is the real victim of a double standard. “I mean, from the moment I announced these hearings, there’s been this incendiary reaction—not that that bothers me,” he says. “But if I had made this about the Christian right or militia movements, I doubt there would have been this knee-jerk reaction. I’d like the media to accept that this can be a conversation without anyone being accused of being a bigot.”

Although King has eyed runs for governor and senator in the past, the ten-term congressman doesn’t seem to have career aspirations beyond keeping his current position. While it’s unclear how King’s hearings might poll nationally, they figure to play well in his district—­especially with his blue-collar base, many of whom have direct connections to 9/11—where King is facing a move to redistrict him out of a job. But politics alone don’t explain King’s motives. Something about 9/11, and the betrayal he felt from Muslims in its aftermath, seems to have triggered a fundamental shift in him. “Even today I cannot begin to describe the disappointment, anger, and outrage I felt,” King wrote in a December op-ed piece. “As I became more immersed in attempting to unravel the radical Islamic threat to our nation and our civilization, it became more and more obvious to me that the moral myopia of Long Island’s Muslim leaders and their apologists in the media was the rule—and that there were few exceptions.”

Even before 9/11, King took a certain pleasure in being that guy—the reality-check guy, the not politically correct guy, the everyday neighborhood guy. Now being that guy for King means being the man who remains vigilant about the threat of terrorism when others have grown complacent. So what happens when people call him a bully, an opportunist, or even a racist? How does that make him feel?

“Let’s not get into too much psychobabble,” King says. “There’s a war going on.”